Great Summer Drives

Summer is upon us, the time when millions pack up the car, strap in the family and hit the road. Although some make a National Lampoon vacation of the process, it surely doesn't have to be that way. With a small bit of planning and, very importantly, the right route, a summer drive with the family, a loved one or even alone can be a fantastically pleasant experience. Oh, you might not have an epiphany, but then again you might.

Because the route is so all-important Driving Today has taken it upon itself to choose some of the best scenic routes in the nation. In our combined decades of pleasure driving for some of America's most renowned automotive magazines, we've seen a gaggle of pretty roads. But we're here to tell you that the four we highlight in this edition of Driving Today are certainly among America's best. And, so that it doesn't seem that we're playing favorites with localities, we have chosen roads in the Northeast, the Southeast, the Midwest and the Pacific Coast. Given the space we have available that's about as ecumenical as we can get. And so, without further ado, here are four Great Summer Drives.

Baxter State Park Drive, Maine

If you're prepared to go slowly and stop and smell the wild flowers along the way, the Baxter State Park Scenic Drive will provide rich rewards. The narrow road sinews 94 miles through the western and northern edge of the park, leading to quiet campsites, ponds, waterfalls, tumbling brooks, and spectacular scenic views. A fairly short jog off busy Interstate 95, the scenic road is about as far from an Interstate in spirit as you can get. The route is narrow, sometimes traffic-clogged and, if the rains have stayed away, it can be dusty as well. But for breathtaking views and the crisp smell of real outdoor air, the route is right up there with the best of them.

Baxter State Park is a result of the efforts and vision of one man -„ Percival Baxter. As governor of the state of Maine, Baxter was a firm proponent of preserving the Katahdin area from being overrun by the logging industry. As a politician his efforts were only partially successful, persuading the legislature to create a game preserve on 90,000 acres of the mountain.

Many might have congratulated themselves for a noble effort and let things go at that, but not Baxter. Instead, as a private citizen he started buying up the land from the lumber companies. In this way he amassed more than 200,000 acres, which he then deeded to the state of Maine with stringent restrictions on how it could be used. Today his legacy is Baxter State Park, which is a tightly controlled nature preserve kept in its "natural wild state." To assure its sanctity the park is operated by the Baxter Park Authority, a state entity distinct from the state's parks department.

Travelers need to remember that the park wasn't designed for driving. This route encourages you to pull over and take in the scenery from outside your car. But as long as you're prepared for a slow, bumpy ride, the effort is more than worth your time.

Leelanau Peninsula, Michigan

This drive starts in Traverse City, a popular resort town on the aptly named Traverse Bay in western lower Michigan. Taking perhaps the better part of a day, the route flows leisurely past colorful cherry orchards, bucolic Midwest farm scenes, quaint little villages and the scenic wonder of Sleeping Bear Dunes. The area is also filled with history. To avoid persecution a branch of the Mormon sect took refuge on nearby Beaver Island, and the tale of their relationship with the mainlanders could be the subject of an historical novel.

The Leelanau peninsula stretches out into Lake Michigan with Traverse Bay on its eastern reaches. A cruise up the western shore of the bay will take you through the attractively un-touristy towns of Sutton's Bay and Northport. After a stop in the historic state park beyond Northport, whose scenic offerings include a vintage lighthouse, you swing back south on route 22 toward the quaint and now attractively touristy town of Leland. Formerly a workingman's fishing village, the town now fishes for tourist dollars much more so than brown trout, but the smoked trout and whitefish to be had there are still delicacies to be savored. Continuing south from Leland will quickly bring you to Sleeping Bear Dune State Park. Called Sleeping Bear by the Native American population because of the huge, tree-covered dune's resemblance to the forest creature, it is accessible both by car and on foot. Before venturing out of your car for a hike to gaze at Lake Michigan be advised, however, that some of the hikes take hours, so it is not for the frivolous. Still, those wanting to get a glimpse of the grand scale of the sand dunes can drive to one of several scenic lookouts within the confines of the park.

From Sleeping Bear Dune, you can make a short southward journey to the town of Empire and then head almost due east back to Traverse City or you can continue south a few more miles to Frankfort, a Lake Michigan port that long served as home to the Ann Arbor railroad car ferries that have been crossing the lake for more than 100 years.

Whidbey Island Area, Washington

The charming little town of La Conner, Washington, which lies about a hour-and-a-half north of Sea-Tac airport, is a good jumping off point for this road trip. Part farming town, part port city, La Conner has become a weekend destination for many Seattle residents, but has somehow retained much of its small town authenticity despite the presence of some trendy coffee bars and gift stores. An artist's community that revels in its funkiness and sense of humor, it is also the home of the famous Rainbow Bridge that has graced many a car commercial.

Leaving La Conner, you head north a few short miles to connect with route 20 which will take you off the Washington mainland onto Fidalgo Island. With attractive Padilla Bay to the east, the road makes a swift entrance into Anacortes, a port and fishing village that has now found itself a tourist destination. Here artists and writers mix in the bars, taverns and restaurants with real working men and women in a Steinbeckian tableau.

Backtracking south out of Anacortes, after a meal of Northwest fish and chips, will take you to Desolation Pass State Park. As its name might suggest, the Pass has held tragedy for many vessels trying to negotiate its narrow strait against what at times is a dauntingly swift current. Safe on the wooded cliffs above, you can watch the action and soak in the Washington sunshine, which is often disguised as clouds.

Once across the Pass, you arrive on Whidbey Island, one of the loveliest islands in the United States. Though tourists have found the place, it isn't overrun with tourist traffic, at least during the week, and it offers secluded seashores, picture-postcard farming scenes and some colorful, well-worn villages.

Frankly Oak Harbor isn't one of them. It's a bit of 1990's suburbia in the midst of a 19th century place. But Coupeville, a tiny burg a bay or so away, is much more "of the place," and a fine place to stop. If you're into fine dining, the Captain Whidbey Inn, located just outside Coupeville, is definitely worth a visit, both for its cuisine and its architecture.

From Coupeville south, the rest of the island is worth a dozen side trips. By all means stop in Langley, yet another artists' community that is chock full of quaint shops and offers an interesting repertory theater during the summer months. In Columbia Beach, hop on one of the state-run car ferries that will provide an interesting hour-hour cruise to Mukilteo on the mainland. Then you can leisurely meander back to La Conner or head south toward the delights of Seattle.

The Florida Keys, Florida

Okay, so it may be hot. And it may be humid. Quit complaining. You're surrounded by gorgeous aquamarine water, and the parks and beaches along the way make it easy to take a cooling dip. And even though it looks like the Caribbean, the Keys are part of the good old USA, which means, among other things, the air conditioning actually works. So avoid the winter crowds that clog the Keys and make this spectacular cruise in the summer, when the area is, almost literally, your oyster.

An easy if somewhat tedious drive from Miami on US 1 will bring you to Key Largo, the title of a vintage Humphrey Bogart movie and a keystone island in the archipelago. In fact many visitors never leave Largo because it offers so much, but they're missing a great deal of what the Keys have to offer.

Traveling southeast on Route 1, the Main Street of all the Keys, will take you on the route of Henry Flagler's trans-ocean railroad, an incredible feat of vision and engineering that was completed early in this century. Without Flagler, the Keys might still be a motley collection of tiny sand islands totally inaccessible from the mainland except by shallow-draft boat.

Each of the islands in the chain offers its own personality. Some are sleepy places to while away time in a rope hammock. Others offer terrific nightlife, eclectic dining opportunities and boating, fishing, snorkeling and diving experiences par excellence. On Islamorada, the Cheeca Lodge is known for its famous guests and fishing tournaments. Departing Long Key, the route takes you across the breathtaking Seven-Mile Bridge, a structure that was memorialized in the movie "True Lies."

The final destination is Key West, the southernmost point in the continental United States, and a place that offers something for every appetite, with the exception, perhaps, of snow skiers. Key West is a town known for its party atmosphere. In fact, even sunset is reason to raise a cheer and down a cold one. Duval Street, once the haunt of Papa Hemingway and Truman Capote, among other literary lights, is as close as you can get to a miniature Bourbon Street.

And when you've finally had enough of the never-ending toga party, just point you car back east and in ninety miles you're back on the mainland.

Safe driving.

-- Jack Nerad